An average American household would probably earn a little over $4,000 a month. The amount is then divided to pay for mortgage, car loan, kids’ schooling, food, utilities, insurance, and some savings for future vacations and contingencies. It is a tough and difficult task, but most of the time, the amount will do.
So can you imagine a single food item costing almost that much for a single pound? And that food item is not an animal that has been fed, given a spoiled life in an air-conditioned farm with classical music being piped out from overhead speakers, and fattened so that they could be served up as the main course in some fancy restaurant (okay, those are Japanese bovines that we are talking about). The expensive food item costing as much as $3,600 per pound that we are talking about is the truffle.
A truffle is actually the fruiting body of an underground mushroom usually found near trees. Fungivores, or animals that feed on fungus, is responsible for the spore dispersal. While there are hundreds of kinds of truffles, only the fruiting body of some are highly sought after in the food world. Most of it is from the genus Tuber. Specifically, food connoisseurs regard the tuber melanosporum and the tuber magnatum in the highest esteem. They are essential ingredients in international haute cuisine, particularly in French, Italian, Greek and Spanish cooking.
Truffles are warty and have irregular shapes yet they are considered the diamonds in the kitchen. The size may also vary, with some as small as a nut while others as large as a man’s fist.
The tuber melanosporum is found in France and is often called the black diamond. A mere couple of shavings of this will already cost hundreds of dollars once it is taken to a restaurant in the French capital of Paris for use in its pate de foie gras. Tuber magnatum, on the other hand, is found in Italy, and is renowned for its aroma. The Italian truffle is white and can sell as much as $3,600 per pound. An Italian white truffle weighing a couple of pounds sold as much as $330,000 in an auction in Macau.
Truffle season usually lasts from September to May. It will usually grow under the base of a tree. Take note that this just happens. It does not have a seed that farmers can place underground for future harvest.
Now, a truffle’s flavor is highly dependent on the strength of its aroma. Once the spores are mature enough for release, a chemical that will develop the truffle’s odor is created. If the truffle is taken too early with the aroma not yet developed, then the taste will be bland and useless.
This is where animals come in. As animals tend to have a stronger sense of smell than humans, they are used in the harvesting of truffles. Animals will only dig up spores that already emit the proper smell, meaning the truffle is mature enough for release.
Truffle hunters usually make use of dogs to help sniff out the location of the truffles. Pigs were used before as the aroma of the spore is similar to the male swine’s sex attractant, but these animals tend to decrease the harvest level because of their tendency to consume anything edible. Once the location of a truffle has been discovered, more can be collected in the years to come.
To maximize the enjoyment of eating truffles, it must be consumed fresh and uncooked shortly after harvesting. The problem is that the flavor of truffle rapidly diminishes in a short span of time.
To ensure the freshness of the truffle being delivered, restaurants usually purchase them in advance. Once the truffles are harvested, they are covered with rice on serving trays and kept in a refrigerated room. This will help in the preservation of the product, thereby retaining its distinctive smell described to be as a combination of musk, nuts and ozone.
There have been some entrepreneurs who have tried cultivating the product in the United States, thereby reducing the transportation time needed for its travel. While some mild success has been achieved in the state of Oregon, the taste and aroma are just not the same. The combination of the red soil in Europe and the rainy summer months are probably essential to the rich and earthy flavor that the Italian and French truffles produce.
The Importance of Truffles
Truffles have been around for the longest time, and they have been used as medicines, and even as aphrodisiacs, since the times of the Greeks and Romans.
In fact, it is so important in some villages in France that special masses are celebrated in the truffle’s honor. This happened in the village of Uzes, where worshipers would add truffles to the money collected in the donation plate. Divine intervention has been requested because of the steady decline of the truffle harvest. Around a hundred years ago, Frenchmen were able to collect 2,000 tons of truffles. Recently, that harvest has gone down to 30 tons.
But while supply has been declining, the demand has not waned a bit. Truffles are so prized that in Italy, a restaurant there attracts rich Europeans who fly in daily just to have lunch with shavings of truffle on everything from the appetizer to the main course and dessert. That single restaurant consumes as much as five tons of truffles every year.
Problems in the Truffle Horizon
The dwindling supply and high prices have brought in the twin problems of organized crime and product imitation. Theft of French and Italian truffles has been on the rise, and these products have later turned up on the lucrative black market. Even the dogs that are trained to sniff for truffles have not been spared, with the animals being stolen to help the criminals gather the truffles for themselves. Imitation, on the other hand, is being done with bland Chinese truffles flooding into the market while masquerading as the expensive white truffle.
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